Designers & Clients: a complicated love story


Last week Jeb Bush unveiled the logo for his run at the White House. It’s an understatement to say that the Internet has not been kind to ol’ Jeb. A colleague shared with me this tongue in cheek fictional exchange between Jeb and his designer

If you’ve been a designer for any longer than six minutes, this is a familiar story. Every designer doing client work has stories like this. My background is in brand design, and I’ve found that those clients can be the most passionate of all (both the good and bad). So trust me, I have stories like that too.

The Internet is awash with ‘client from hell’ stories and jokes where the general theme is “our job would be great if only we didn’t need clients.”

I’ve got a harsh truth for you:
If your design career is full of terrible client experience after terrible client experience, YOU are the problem. Take a breath, accept it, and now let’s deal with it.

You see, I’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about how crucial the skill of managing clients is for a designer. I’ve worked with clients on branding projects, website projects, iconography projects, and mobile app projects. Whilst I do have a design process that runs throughout my work, each project is different, so I tailor the process to suit it. Why is it we’re so often so rigid with how we deal with clients?

We should love our clients. There, I said it. Controversy. Except, it shouldn’t be. These guys enable us to do what we love. Otherwise we’re just making flyers for our neighbour’s daughter’s friend’s car-boot sale — and we all know how well paid those jobs are.

We need to understand that often a client is terrified about hiring a designer. They don’t understand what we do or why it’s so expensive. Isn’t it just colouring in or picking a font? Why does it take so long? What if I don’t like it. I like blue. Can’t the logo be blue? Here, I’ve doodled a version on a napkin, can you make it look like that? Do you really need to put so much thought into every element?

You see – the client at the end of that sentence sounds awful, but he’s not. He’s simply been awfully managed by his designer. He cares passionately about his product and he’s pouring money his own hard earned money into it. He doesn’t know how this process is supposed to work. Get to know the client, educate the client and love the client.

Yep, part of our job is to educate clients about the design process. To do that we need to get to know them. That means meeting them. Face to face. And talking to them. And I don’t mean via email. Meet them, shake their hand, suss them out and nail down their personality and sensibility as soon as possible. Your clients are vetting you and you should be doing the same.

Face it, a lot of your clients won’t know how to give design feedback. That’s why you’re getting ‘useless’ comments such as “I don’t like it.” Before a project starts, you’ll need to be pleasant, charming, and then calmly set out how your feedback loops should work. You’ll present your designs with eloquence and clarity (if you’re not presenting your designs personally we’ve got bigger problems) and you’ll be clear about the type of feedback you want. You’ll give discussion points on what areas need feedback and how soon that should arrive. This feedback is actionable. If you’ve explained why you’ve used a certain colour and why it is fit for purpose, again you’ll avoid that ‘useless’ feedback such as – “I don’t like that colour”. That’s not relevant or helpful feedback. Explaining this before the project starts (remember – with charm) avoids an awkward conversation mid-project.

This leads to another crucial point. Let’s say that you’re designing a logo as part of a branding project (although this can be applied to any client based design project). You’ve spent time with the client, you’ve clearly defined the design brief and you’ve done your research. You’ve clarified how the client will be measuring success, and you’ve laid out what is a “fit for purpose” product. The logo needs to appeal to consumers. It needs to provoke the right emotion, be memorable and recognisable. Let’s simplify it in a horribly crass statement: the target audience have got to like it.

Did you get that? The Target Audience have to like it. It is irrelevant whether the CEO likes it. Fun fact. You know that magnificent FedEx logo, or the iconic Nike logo? Well – the CEOs of both companies HATE them. I mean, they hate them with the passion of a thousand suns. It doesn’t stop both logos from being magnificent and truly iconic. They are fit for purpose. They match the design brief and the sign off wasn’t based on a subjective option of the CEO or marketing guy in the corner. Your job is to help the client grasp that the primary aim isn’t to create a logo that they like.

Another fun fact – I totally invented the story about those CEOs. The important take away is that you didn’t know. Maybe they did hate them. Maybe they didn’t. The point is that the success of the logo didn’t depend on the design sensibilities of a guy that none of the customers will ever meet.

But that brings us to the second purpose, the one that on the face of it feels at odds with the first. Whilst it’s irrelevant whether or not the client likes the logo – you DO need him to sign it off, you do want him to be happy, and you do want him to be proud of his product. So, how do we achieve this? By educating the client about the design process, positive feedback, and the purpose of the project. If the client starts the project thinking that he wants a lovely blue logo for his soft drink, and you produce the coca cola logo, he’s going to be disappointed. That’s because you’ve not clearly confirmed the design brief, or discussed how he’ll be measuring success.

It’s important to note just how crucial that first meeting is with the client. You need to be asking probing questions. Your clients are deciding whether they want to work with you, so you should be doing the same. Look for red flags. Do you get the impression that they value the work they’re hiring you to do? Do they want it fast and cheap and don’t understand why this is a problem? – red flag. They’ve been through countless designers but haven’t been happy once – red flag. They actually could design it themselves, but just don’t have time to do it, but they can definitely do it themselves because they own photoshop – MASSIVE RED FLAG. Look – all of the above is true. If you are struggling with a client, put aside ego and honestly consider if it’s because you’ve mismanaged them. However, just like there are bad designers, there are bad clients. Learn to suss them out and avoid taking on the work. Always remember, that cheap and fast job that will definitely be easy and will lead to more work and is definitely great exposure — it will always end the same way. It will be your longest project, it will lose you money, it won’t lead to more work, and no-one will ever see it. And then you’ll curl up in the foetal position and weep uncontrollably for an hour or so.

Your work isn’t worthless. If a client thinks it’s not worth time and money, then they don’t value it. RED FLAG. But that’s another article entirely.

So, this was a late night ramble of thoughts that are no doubt expressed more eloquently elsewhere. I’ll tidy it up at some point, but for now it’ll help me sleep. Still, hopefully it’ll be of some use.

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